Picture this: Lucy, a young girl in her teens, living about 300,000 years ago, is looking for berries as she walks out in the African Savanna. In the distance, she sees a large beige object. This could be a lion, or a rock. If Lucy decides it is a rock and continues to walk toward it and lo and behold the beige object turns out to be a lion, Lucy becomes lunch! If on the other hand, Lucy decides the distant beige object is a lion she becomes afraid and runs away. Result is that her body has released stress hormones to create a flight response so that she is saved, from a rock – or a lion.
We are programmed by nature to have such a negativity bias. Our survival and evolution depended on it. Even if we no longer need to fear becoming lunch for a lion, it is the same response that gets us out of the way of an oncoming car. Unfortunately, it is also likely to be the basis for our excessive worrying and rumination.
Acute stress, running away from an oncoming car, is a good thing for survival. However chronic stress, such as the Covid 19 pandemic has put on us over the last couple of years, is not. Our bodies were designed to be mostly in a relaxed state so that they can respond to danger with a rush of stress hormones. However, constant release of those hormones deteriorate our bodies with devastating effects.
To build resilience and bring ourselves back to the desired relaxed state, we can employ a variety of strategies. One of these is Mindfulness.
Mindfulness is training our brain to be aware of our moment by moment experiences. If we are living in the moment, aware of our experiences of the moment, we are not ruminating on the past or worrying about the future.
Thankfully, our brains are trainable. Just like we can strengthen our quadriceps muscles with squats and lunges, we can strengthen our brain’s mindful awareness capacity by exercising it. One exercise for our brain is meditation. One doesn’t have to be a Buddhist monk to meditate. Nor does one need to sit for an hour without thinking. First of all, that is impossible for us mere mortals. Second, that isn’t even the point of this secular meditation. If you have never done a squat in your life, you will not be able to do 60 of them on your first try. Meditation is no different. Set yourself up for success, and start with perhaps a minute or so. Again, the point of this exercise is not to sit without thinking. The point is to notice when you are lost in thought and bring your attention to the present moment. Our breath is a good tool in this training, because it is always there.
If meditation is not your cup of tea, another mindfulness exercise could be done while you are brushing your teeth. Just pay attention to each tooth as your brush touches it. Or the movement of your hand as it manipulates the brush. There, you don’t even need to extra time to practice Mindfulness.
Bringing our attention from our past/future to the present helps build resilience and reduces stress. There are many, many studies that prove this point. In addition to resilience, Mindfulness has many other benefits, but those are topics for another post.